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Haiti's Disaster and Hollywood's AVATAR
by Vishal Mangalwadi
The 9 million people of Haiti, largely of Afrcan descent, inhabit about 10,000 square miles of the paradise-like Caribbean island of Hispaniola. They constitute the only nation to gain its independence through a successful slave rebellion in 1804. Sadly, Haiti remains the poorest country in the Americas.
Its independence was inspired in part by the secular idealism of the French Revolution and biblical Christianity, but launched in a voodoo ceremony on August 14, 1791, that, according to oral tradition, included sacrificing a pig, drinking its blood and making a pact with the demonic supernatural.
In 200 years, none of its 32 coups, multiple dictatorships and democratic elections succeeded in building political freedoms. Lawlessness, insecurity, instability, and dependency permeate Haitian society. That makes it hard for their independence to realize either the economic potential witnessed during the colonial period or that of the Caribbean tourism we see today. This is what led French President Nicholas Sarkozy and Tele-evangelist Pat Robertson to describe Haiti as a land that appears to be under a curse. On January 12, 2010, Haiti’s capital, Port-au-Prince, was devastated by an earthquake of 7.0 magnitude: as many as 200,000 people may have been killed, and now, more than a weeks later, 20,000 people are reported to be dying every day due to lack of food, water and medical care.
The Disaster: Natural or Cultural?
On October 17, 1989, an earthquake of 7.0 magnitude also struck the San Francisco Bay Area in the United States of America: only 63 people died. At that time the Bay Area had over 5 million residents; Port-au-Prince has less than a million.
Why this difference? The Bay Area was built on a culture of law, justice, freedom, which has created a social order that makes prosperity possible. Contrastingly, in spite of many wonderful exceptions mentioned below, Haitian society was built on a culture of immoral corruption, oppression, social mistrust and resultant poverty. Builders routinely disregard the rules for constructing safe buildings because political, bureaucratic and law enforcement institutions move on the wheels of bribery and fraud. Plainly, while Haiti’s earthquake was natural, its disaster is cultural. Thus, even though individuals need immediate relief, the only way to successfully rebuild Haiti is to transform its culture.
Can the Avatar Save Haiti from its Corruption?
In order to overcome its culture of corruption and poverty, Haiti needs many heroes like that of Jake, in Cameron’s movie Avatar. Jake was an outsider but, like Jesus Christ, he incarnated among a people in great need and became one of them. He chose to sacrifice his own life in order to save a vulnerable people that he dearly loved.
The Avatar’s hero is ideal, but its scriptwriter is naïve. The people of Haiti practice Voodoo spiritism because they understand and know reality better than Hollywood’s romantic idealists.
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The Haitians realize that they do not know the supreme creative spirit, they call Bondey. Since they cannot know or reach Bondey, many of them assume (just as the Western Deists do) that the Creator is also incapable of reaching them, revealing Himself to them, loving them enough to discipline them or to incarnate in their midst to save them. French Roman Catholicism tried to convert African slaves in the 17th century; therefore, some embellished Catholic trappings adorn Haitian Voodooism. Although biblical Christianity is now growing in Haiti, most Haitians believe that the Creator does not care enough to interfere with human affairs. Therefore, Voodooism does not seek, fear or serve the unknown, absentee Creator.
Nevertheless, most Haitians do not think that only the material world is real. They know that spirits exist because some get possessed and their religious leaders receive communications and certain supernatural powers from spirits, called Lwa or Loa. Consequently, a majority of Haitians fear and served these spirits.
Like many Indians as well as the Na’vi people in Avatar, the Haitians believe that these spirits govern nature. Disasters, such as the present earthquake, have taught Haitians that the spirits which govern nature or possess individuals are not always good and benevolent. Nature contributes to life, but it also bring disease, disasters and death. As the movie itself puts it, the Mother Earth Force doesn’t take sides between good and evil. It is amoral. It merely restores balance. For example, if you turn a forest into desert, you will then have to live in the scarcity of a desert. Indian Tantriks (occult priests) know well that no god or goddess sacrifices his/her life to save others. Quite the opposite: they may demand the blood of your neighbor’s child before they grant your petitions. Therefore, just as many of our “holy” Tantriks and ascetics become demoniacs, many Haitians have also become like the gods and goddesses they worship – capricious, greedy and unpredictable.
Haiti is different than the Bay Area because Haitian society is built on an outlook that the universe is not a cosmos ruled by the Word of One benevolent and just Creator, but a multiverse or chaos, governed by many unpredictable deities. This worldview does not encourage a systematic study of nature (science) or an attempt to govern and manage nature (technology). Since the multiverse has no Law-Giver who will hold us accountable, there is no need to be a law abiding citizen – especially if you can bribe human rulers, just as your priests bribe the gods.
Could Cameron’s Portrayal of America be Prophetic?
The Avatar portrays secular America as a brutal super-power, ever-ready to sacrifice simple, nature-worshipping people at the altar of amoral economic greed. America has had ugly moments in its history. Haiti, however, is witnessing a very different America – a nation that is quick to sacrifice billions of dollars in aid; a nation filled with churches and relief agencies now sending thousands of volunteers to serve the helpless; an army that will spend its resources to rescue the trapped and save aid workers from mobs of greedy, spirit-worshipping Haitians who will loot food from the mouths of lonely elderly and vulnerable orphans.
Unfortunately, Cameron’s Avatar could turn out to be a prophetic portrayal of 21st century America. Following the European Enlightenment, American intellectuals also learned what Indians and Haitians have always known: The human mind, by itself (i.e., without divine revelation) cannot know the Creator, His moral law or His saving grace. (However, does our inability to reach God, prevent Him from incarnating to save us as Jake saved the Na’vi?) The Enlightenment’s intellectual arrogance has choked Europe and America’s ability to seek God’s grace and revelation. Although professing themselves to be intellectuals, they are continuing to march towards a Haitian-like destiny: America’s godless, secular intelligentsia has succeeded in eliminating the spirit and our Creator’s law, power and guidance from education. As a result, public universities have become factories churning out amoral and progressively immoral leaders.
The brightest of these university graduates now control a significant section of corporate America. Their amoral, greed-driven financial management caused the economic crisis that began in 2008. Honest working tax-payers were forced to bail out Wall Street, but the crisis continues to haunt hundreds of millions in America and around the world.
Amoral “intellectual” elitism is now crippling American politics. At the moment of writing, President Obama’s No. 1domestic priority – Healthcare Reform – lies derailed, in shambles. “Reforming” healthcare sounds like a good thing. However, if the ruling party is really doing something good, why does it have to bribe its own Senators and trade unions with hundreds of millions of dollars to simply pass a “Reform” bill?
Once American politics succumbs to spirit-and-morality-rejecting secular materialism, America’s military will be in the hands of amoral, greed-driven capitalists. The idea that a military should be used only for a “Just War” is a uniquely Christian concept developed from the teachings of the Bible, St. Augustine of Hippo and St. Thomas Aquinas, systematized by Stanislaw of Skarbimierz (1360–1431) in his sermons “About Just War” (De bellis justis). The Just War Theory assumes that governments and armies must live under the moral authority of a just God. The idea of using army only for a Just War has never been a part of a Pagan, Hindu, Muslim, Atheist or Communist worldview. Already, millions of Americans have no moral problem with killing their own pre-born babies, when they are an inconvenience. Secular materialism can give them no moral reason not to eliminate the (Avatar’s) Na’vi when it suits their agenda. At that point, America will become even worse than a Saddam Hussein who marched his tanks into Kuwait to loot its oil wealth. When that happens, America will be what Avatar portrays – incomparably more dreadful than Hitler’s Germany.
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Most Americans do assume that America can exchange the truth of God for a lie without becoming like Stalin’s Russia of Nazi Germany. However, the assumption that North America has some kind of inherent immunity to the consequences of intellectual and moral sin is a racist presumption. Cameron may be prophetic in his portrayal of America. Yet, America can still be saved from its encroaching corruption and inevitable destruction. It can repent and return to the biblical spirituality that founded and still undergirds (albeit frailly) the Bay Area’s culture of just, compassionate and law-abiding capitalism powered by scientific research and technology.
Tens of thousands of Indians that now lead the technological and financial sectors of the Bay Area demonstrate that India (or Haiti) does not need to remain “backward.”
Cameron’s Avatar is fiction, but the marvelous truth about Haiti, India, America and Europe’s future is that God has in fact incarnated in human history. The historic Avatar (incarnation) actually sacrificed his life to save us from our sin. Therefore, we do not need to live as slaves of sin which caused Haiti’s cultural disaster. We can move forward if we hold on to what James Cameron does not yet know: the spirits of trees, rivers, astrology and mythology cannot save us. We know that we are not Noble Savages of Hollywood’s romantic idealism: we Indians are as corrupt as the Haitians, and the Americans are catching up with our corruption.
The Na’vi’s accepted their savior after significant resistance. We need humility to confess our need of the Incarnated Divine Love who sacrificed himself to save us from our sin, including the sin of worshipping false gods, whether of trees and demonic deities, or of greed for power and material progress at the cost of the welfare of humanity and nature.
Since Haiti’s disaster is cultural, the most effective way to help transform it while meeting immediate needs is to channel developmental aid (in contrast to the relief aid) through Bible-believing local churches that seek to cultivate biblical spirituality. It is true that many biblical churches have not yet assumed the responsibility to transform their wider culture. They don’t yet understand why the true Avatar (Jesus) challenged corruption in the heart of his own culture when he drove out those who were turning the central culture shaping institution, the Temple, into a den of robbers. Nevertheless, there are good churches in Haiti and one can connect with some of the effective and trustworthy churches through organizations such as www.HarvestFoundation.org.
One of Harvest’s contacts wrote the following to me:
“Five days after the earthquake, I traveled to Dominican Republic to accompany a team of Dominican church leaders on a relief mission to a neighborhood on the far outskirts of Port-au-Prince. We drove our trucks into the courtyard of a small neighborhood hospital that had been built by Haitian Christians in Miami. As we began unloading the food, water and medicine, a crowd of people began gathering around. I engaged one man in conversation – I don’t even remember his name. This man looked to be in his fifties. He saw the crowd gathering in his neighborhood and came to see what was going on. This is what he told me about himself: (1) He is an industrial engineer who works at the Port-au-Prince steel refinery. (2) He did all of his education in Haiti and has never lived outside of his country. (3) He loves his country and his people.
After our conversation, I went to work trying to help organize the injured who had come for help. A group of young men entered the premises, and several of them were asking us to give them jobs. Pretty soon, a crowd of these young men began approaching the truck with supplies. An argument broke out among them, and it looked as though a fight was about to erupt. Frankly, I was pretty apprehensive, bordering on afraid. At that moment, this industrial engineer stood in the middle of the courtyard and loudly called for everyone to gather around him. He kept insisting, and soon everyone, including the angry young men, gathered around. He spoke in kreyol, but there was enough French thrown in that I could follow his conversation. Basically, he called them out, saying, “This is not how we Haitians respond to hardship. We have our Haitian ways of reacting. We look out for one another; we get in groups of three or four and solve our problems together.” Incredibly, that calmed the crowd. The rowdy young men leaked out of the compound one by one. I didn’t get a chance to talk with this man afterwards, except to shake his hand and tell him, “Monsieur, vous etes un homme de paix!” (sir, you are a man of peace).
That incident gave me great hope. Leaders will emerge from among the people. As far as I know, this man had no official role in that community. He didn’t proclaim himself to be an authority. But, he spoke with authority, and the crowd listened and followed his lead. If the Lord gives me the opportunity, I want to spend my time and energy in Haiti recognizing and encouraging such leaders, particularly in the church.”
About the author: Vishal Mangalwadi described by Christianity Today as “India’s foremost Christian intellectual” is the author of 14 books. His bio is available on www.VishalMangalwadi.com